Monday, February 20, 2012

Disarray of the left has spared the right its due

The Irish Times
February 21st, 2012

THERE MAY be an Irish political anorak with an interest in the recent presidential election in Finland, but there are surely not two of us. Yet that election was a vivid illustration of the great strangeness of contemporary European politics.

For the last 30 years, the Finnish president has been a social democrat. This time, the social democratic candidate, a former prime minister, got just 6.7 per cent of the vote. The conservative candidate won in a landslide, with 62 per cent.

As ever, there were specific local factors at work. But the Finnish election was also entirely consistent with a much larger pattern: the eclipse of the traditional mainstream European left. Or, to put it the other way around, the extraordinary dominance of the conservative right in the midst of a profound crisis of neo-liberal capitalism.

Almost everywhere you look, social democrats are being punished for the failure of right-wing orthodoxies. Europe desperately needs a counter-balance to the one-track mind of monetarism. Ireland desperately needs a European Union that rediscovers the old left-of-centre values of solidarity, social justice and the common good. But social democracy is showing all the resilience of a paper hat in a hailstorm.

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, there have been 25 elections in EU countries. By my count, social democratic parties won five of them. But things have been much worse than even this miserable performance suggests. The social democratic victory in Portugal was short-lived. The Greek socialist government has been replaced by a technocratic coalition.

Even the great bright spot for social democrats, the election of Helle Thorning-Schmidt in Denmark, masked the reality that her social democratic party actually lost support. Perhaps even more gallingly, when a major right-wing figure, Silvio Berlusconi, fell, he was taken down, not by the left-wing opposition, but by the international money markets.

The losses, on the other hand, were often of historic proportions, with Europe’s greatest social democratic stalwart, the SPD in Germany, sinking in 2009 to just 23 per cent of the vote – its worst ever performance. The Swedish social democrats, for so long rivals to Fianna Fáil for the title of Europe’s most successful party, got just 30 per cent. The Socialist Party in Spain got its worst result since the return of democracy in 1978.

Any sane observer looking at these results without knowing the broader circumstances would conclude that neo-liberal capitalism was thriving and that right-of-centre European parties were proving themselves to be paragons of economic and political management.

You’d never guess that the right-wing orthodoxy of deregulation and growing inequality had led to the worst slump since the great depression. Or that the big figures of the European right, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, have been flopping around like jellyfish, patently unable to get to grips with the scale of the crisis and making their once-derided conservative predecessors, such as Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl, look like titanic visionaries. Or that their policy prescriptions of infinite money for banks and austerity for everyone else is an obvious failure.

The least that might be expected is that, with the right in almost complete control across the EU, it might be able to construct a coherent and consistent conservative response, based on the rules of capitalism. It hasn’t even managed that. And if the European right looks across the Atlantic for intellectual leadership from the Republicans, all it sees is a freak show.

Why is the mainstream left in such disarray?

The most obvious reason is that much of it, under the spell of Tony Blair’s stunning victories in Britain, lost interest in any notion of an alternative economic vision. It came to believe, in essence, in a new compromise: right-wing economics would create the wealth and left-wing politics would redistribute it. Peter Mandelson’s formula of being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes” summed it up.

Deregulated financial markets would generate vast wealth for unproductive individuals – but that was okay because social democratic governments would cream some off the top to invest in health, education and the alleviation of the inevitable poverty. The flaws in the plan are now obvious, even to Mandelson: growing inequality would prove to be economically as well as socially corrosive; many of the filthy rich didn’t actually “pay their taxes”; and deregulated financial markets created giant Ponzi schemes that were certain to collapse.

The mistake is acknowledged now by social democratic parties across Europe. But they’re still struggling to articulate what must follow: the realisation that the left can’t just argue about the redistribution of wealth. It must have credible alternative ways both of creating and defining it, rooted in sustainability (social and environmental), equality and wellbeing. If social democracy remains a watered-down, slightly nicer version of right-wing orthodoxies, voters will continue to prefer the real thing.

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